Michael Jackson and Madonna, the king and queen of the Weird and Wonderful in pop music, have handed their crown and scepter down to one lucky lady—Lady Gaga. Although some resent their new regent, she’s won over more fans than she’s lost. Millions have given into her catchy club tunes, ushered into her arms by her music videos and bizarre media appearances. Her second full-length album, “Fame Monster,” is proof of her constant evolution.
From the moment you press play, she gives you what you came for. “Whoaaa, caught in a Bad Romance!” For just a second, you may start to doubt yourself—“why did I buy this record? Lady Gaga’s fun to watch, or even to just look at, but her music is sort of bland”—but any doubts about her sonic qualities are soon drowned out by a stomping refrain: “Ra ra, ra ra ra, ra ma, ro ma ma, gaga ooh la la!”
Lady Gaga may seem like just another dippy popstar, but as Sasha Frere-Jones pointed out in The New Yorker, she has a dizzying set of credentials. As a pre-teen, she passed up Juilliard for Convent of the Sacred Heart; she gained early admission at the age of 17 to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. A quick YouTube search for “Stefani Germanotta” will bring up early talent show videos in which she proves that she’s a legitimate songwriter, singer and pianist.
And, as Frere-Jones hypothesizes, she has nailed the holy grail of the music industry: the formula for the perfect pop song. I’ve done some research (via YouTube and iTunes), and I’ve determined some of the mysterious pieces of Gaga’s formula.
One of these elements just happens to be vocal stutters. From the “ra ra ra ra ra!” of “Bad Romance,” to her “P-p-p-pokerface,” Gaga’s songs are overflowing with chopped up syllables. And weirdly — it works. Listen to either of these songs, and see if you don’t find yourself muttering them under your breath a week later.
Another important element is that from the beginning, Lady Gaga has foreshadowed her success. Her first single, “Just Dance,” purports to be played in the club; sure enough, within weeks of its release, you couldn’t go to a club without escaping that song. She does the same thing in “Telephone” and “So Happy I Could Die” (as if clubs needed any further prompting to play her music at this point). Then in “Paparazzi,” she switches the tables: “Baby, you’ll be famous— I’ll chase you down until you love me.”
Wow, wait. We’re the “superstars”? And she’s our “biggest fan”? Talk about reverse psychology. “Paparazzi” hit the charts at #74, peaked at #6, and is still enjoying nearly three months of nonstop airplay.
In case you haven’t heard any of these songs, they’re all included on the deluxe edition of “Fame Monster,” which is great for newly converted Gaga-heads. The deluxe edition would also be a great Christmas gift if you happen to know anyone that loves pop music, but has not heard any of Gaga’s hit songs (like, say, people that live under rocks).
The new songs on “Fame Monster” are rambunctious and catchy as hell, which is frankly all that we require of Gaga. “Monster” would be a great theme song for Beauty and her Beast—“that little monster ate my heart!”—or for the rare “Team Jacob” Twilight fan.
“So Happy I Could Die” is my personal favorite, and probably what I would serenade Lady Gaga with if I saw her “in the club.” God, I love that lavender blonde.
However, there are some minor gaffes. One of these is that the album, in both the regular and deluxe releases, claims to be explicit, but any version that you pick up today will actually be censored. Fans are up in arms about this coddling— isn’t Gaga supposed to be freaking us out all the time? Isn’t she obscene? Crazy, even? Why would you censor our lovable schizoid?! Alas, the current “Fame Monster” has Gaga sputtering “bit” instead of “bitch,” with jarring gaps covering up her f-bombs. Oh well: if you haven’t ordered it already, a non-censored version has been promised to the clamoring masses.
Another speedbump in “Fame Monster” is that some of her songs echo other hit songs —which, at best, gives us unconscious positive connections to the earlier hits. At worst, it sounds derivative.
For instance, the song “Speechless” is supposed to be a very personal letter to Gaga’s father, a plea for him to stop putting off heart surgery. Nice. And it sounds nice, too — in her acoustic piano version, which she showcased on “Ellen.” But on the album version, it’s overstuffed with wailing guitars, overdubbed voices, and dramatic drums; it’s more of a pale imitation of a Queen ballad than anything else.
Meanwhile, the song “Teeth” sounds too much like KT Tunstall’s “Black Horse and the Cherry Trees” with its chorus of Gaga call-and-response. Sure, “Teeth” has the same lush Lady Gaga production that we’re used to, but here, it sounds garish. Not even the sexy Gaga snarls in the background can make this one another “Poker Face” (although, if it’s released as a single, it will probably go gold).
In an obligatory Gwen Stefani moment, Lady Gaga appropriates another language/culture into kitschy cuteness for “Alejandro.” Stefani pretended to be Mexican for “Luxurious”; Gaga puts on an absurd accent to bemoan her Latin romances in “Alejandro.” This song is practically a parody of Shakira, right down to its rhythm—and yet, for all its faults, “Alejandro” is damnably irresistible.
Frankly, that’s how most of the album (and most of Lady Gaga’s career) works.
There’s a very bizarre parallel to Gwen Stefani’s attempt at pop-stardom in Lady Gaga. Both of them are Italian-Americans from upper-middle-class backgrounds; both faux platinum blondes; both tiny women with huge amounts of stage presence; both try to entrance us by means of freaking us out. Gwen Stefani opted for an obsession with Japan, peaking with a chorus of Japanese girls who would follow her around to any public event. When asked about the so-called “Harajuku Girls” on MTV’s TRL, she claimed that they were “figments of my imagination.”
Lady Gaga, meanwhile, has said that she’s a hermaphrodite (which was a joke), that she’s bisexual (which is probably true), and generally dribbles whatever weird words come to her in interviews. Her performative idiosyncrasies are just as weird, if not weirder, than Stefani’s — she appeared on the cover of “Rolling Stone” wearing only bubbles and an afro, banged her feet on her keyboard for an AOLive exclusive, and bled all over the stage of the VMAs.
Stefani had solid production and visually pleasing videos, like the surreal cheerleading/marching band jam “Hollaback Girl.” Gaga has both of these, but to such an overwhelming extent that even Gwen Stefani, playing an orgasmic Alice in Wonderland in “What You Waiting For,” seems positively amateur. Video may have killed the radio star, but it’s actually made Gaga into the Lady reigning supreme over today’s charts.
In fact, most of Gaga’s success can probably be attributed to the deadly combo of her production team and the viral video age. When Stefani was poised to become the next Madonna, YouTube was only just being conceived, and Facebook was but a tiny germ of a social network. When Gaga’s video for “Bad Romance” premiered, it dominated everyone’s mini-feed—and a link that says “12 of Your Friends Posted: Bad Romance” is more convincing than any grinning MTV VJ.
Although Stefani arguably had the same ego, the same sound, even the same image as Lady Gaga, she suffered from poor timing. Had she chosen to break free from No Doubt any later, she might have been the one in Gaga’s jeweled 8-inch shoes. Meanwhile, Gaga is blessed with perfect timing — in more ways than one.
Gaga is smart about a lot of things, but her timing has been crucial to her self-created phenomenon. For instance, the instantly eponymous “Bad Romance” was previewed at an Alexander McQueen fashion show on Oct. 10; “leaked” to the public as a single on Oct. 25; then transformed into a mesmerizing music video November 10. With each new unveiling, anticipation for “Fame Monster,” released Nov. 17, raised to a fever pitch.
If she had let that single simmer any longer or any less, this album’s reception probably would have been lukewarm. Yet as it stands, Lady Gaga is perched on top of the world, leading the masses out of the factories and into the land of impeccable pop.
Sounds like a scene out of “Metropolis,” right? And it very well may be. We’re still not sure how much of Gaga is Stefani Germanotta, and how much of her has been crafted by the Rotwang evil geniuses of the music industry. Of her first album, “Fame,” Gaga said that she “did the whole damn thing,” but she clearly has a crack team of producers and marketing gurus helping to fan the flames.
Let’s ignore the inner mechanisms of popstars for a moment, and allow ourselves to fall under the dazzling spell of Lady Gaga’s ongoing performance. If she truly is the Pied Piper of our generation’s pop culture, the fall is guaranteed to be fun as hell.